Flexibility of expression in the chaconne

February 12, 2019, 2:29 PM · I'm trying to understand some of the interpretations of the arpeggios passage(s) about halfway through the chaconne.

My goal is to try to give my own professional catchy pop twist onto this classical music.

Just kidding.

In any case, many of the performers of this play it in different ways. Hahn and Ehnes (granted I think Hilary was 16 when she recorded this, and may have been trying to avoid stirring the pot) play it basically as written in the Galamian book edition, with a lot of clarity. Stern/Gitlis break the chords into basically 2 double stops. Perlman/Vengerov attack the string crossings almost like a romantic-lite passage. Podger hits the bottom and top notes pretty hard and kind of "plays over" the middle open D string. And Heifetz does...whatever it is that he does with the detache stroke.

Since Bach (according to the document scans in my book) wasn't altogether forthcoming about how to actually play this, what are the rules for personal expression in this passage? I was experimenting with playing the arpeggios, but only the way up (so the first ones would be broken like F-D-A, F-D-A, F-D-A, F-D-A, F-D-A, F-D-A instead of the written F-D-A-D, F-D-A-D etc...) and thought it actually sounded kind of good, but with a more "light, haunting" character than what Galamian has printed.

Is this legal to do? I'm not preparing for any audition or anything, but I'd like to at least keep it within the bounds of "good taste".

Replies (17)

February 12, 2019, 2:47 PM · Everyone has different ideas about what constitutes "good taste," in Bach and otherwise. You should do what you want.

However, if you want a more meaningful answer, you should post a video of you playing it and see how people like it.

February 12, 2019, 2:59 PM · You need to spell professional like "proffesional" in order to imitate the true greatness of David Krakovich. You scared my with the "proffesional catchy pop twist" thing, though.

And yeah, taste is subjective. And it's fine to ignore markings, as long as they're not notes - I mean, it's Bach, and he was pretty fuzzy in regards of telling what he wants out of his music (other than sheer beauty, of course!) so you do you. Also, posting a video would be really cool.

February 12, 2019, 3:16 PM · You haven't told us the most important thing, which is how fast can you play it? Are you the fastest in the world? If not then sadly you will never achieve your goals....

(Kidding, obvs!)

Genuinely my advice would be to take a deep dive into historically informed performance, if you've not already - "Before the Chinrest", "Baroque string playing for ingenious learners", Leopold Mozart, Quantz - read all of that and then see how that affects your approach to Bach!

February 13, 2019, 1:30 AM · I'll post a video after I get a halfway decent condenser mic.

And I should probably learn all the notes, while I'm at it. I'm actually finding the tight cornering in Bach to be miles more difficult than some of the "showpieces".

Edited: February 13, 2019, 2:20 PM · Well, I am currently putting Chaconne together myslef.

I mused and dreamed about these arpeggios for amout 1 month now. I came to realize that I stuck with the interpretation that was most natural to me personally. By some extreme coincidence it was almost exactly the same as Ehnes (that was before I found Ehnes’ recording on YT).

The hardest has to be (at least to me) whatever Heifetz does. But he dishes out other peculiarities which make this piece far more difficult than it ought to be. It’s just hard to make it sound coherent and composed the way Heifetz plays it.

So - try everything and stick to what’s the most natural to you.

Edited: February 13, 2019, 4:33 PM · I am on this endless project as well. My method is triplet arpeggio up, triplet arpeggio down. It is one trick that allows the triple-stops and quadruple-stops to be in the same rhythm. I seem to bring out one voice or the other on a fairly random basis, depending on the day. And because I was a harpsichordist first on Bach, I am not above a little expressive rubato as I roll through it. Your "catchy pop twist" scared me, too, as I had suggested to our favorite troll to apply his manic speed insanity to the Chaconne a few threads ago.
February 14, 2019, 9:28 AM · Heifetz, for all his greatness, did not turn out a Chaconne that I enjoy. The detache ruins it for me. It was almost technicality for technical sake, not musical.
February 14, 2019, 9:43 AM · "Rules for personal expression?"
"What's legal?"

Maybe you need change your approach to music, not the chords. And stop depending on the violin stars du jour for guidance in Bach, especially Perlman. Not that I don't respect Perlman--it's just that I'd never suggest his Bach recordings as a reference for anything (I had the whole set). Sarasate, yes. Bach, no.
And Hahn? The cleanest, most sanitized, and most lacking in passion of them all. Heifetz? Yikes, what a poor model for Baroque playing.

Sometimes I think that young players today think that the only players out there are those found on youtube. Kind of like Plato's cave metaphor.

February 14, 2019, 9:45 AM · Keep listening to recordings -- and especially recordings from the last 5-10 years. There really is no right or wrong, and there is a much wider range of approaches than there was just half a generation ago. Baroque bow techniques have been learned and absorbed by so many fiddlers and are informing performances.

Just to offer some names not already mentioned, Isabelle Faust is essential. Amandine Beyer is a French baroque fiddler who makes some really interesting choices and plays very musically. The recent Mullova recordings are wonderful. On Youtube there is a video performance by Robyn Bollinger that's really nice. All of these are fun to listen to and take ideas from.

February 14, 2019, 9:52 AM · Scott - if you are serious (I often cannot tell), I agree with you. Especially re: HH - she's fantastic but her playing does nothing for me.

Paul mentioned Gidon Kremer's S&Ps, which are really nice.

February 14, 2019, 10:16 AM · Kremer is a crazy guy. Everything is twice as fast. Which is why his recording of Bach, which I find kind of harsh and spastic, are 2 discs instead of 3 like the others. Too aggressive, with little emphasis on tonal beauty. He's like a pit bull with Bach.

Thomas, why limit yourself to recordings from the last 5-10 years? This is what I'm talking about. There is a universe of great violinists that exist beyond that. For modern violinists, Tetzlaff isn't bad for Bach. Not sure what year he recorded them, but I think in the 90s sometime. Is that too ancient and decrepit to listen to?

February 14, 2019, 10:33 AM · Mr. Tetzlaff recorded them thrice-I have the latest version for Ondine (and may have heard the first some time ago-remember a friend not liking the second version vs the first). Very "free" performance, and quite good even when I wouldn't agree with everything.

I personally wouldn't be too dogmatic about Bach period performance. There are still very old performances-and quite non-HIP comforming-that are quite inspiring. It's best to listen to these works without a little strict voice in one's head, telling you how "off" or out of style the performance is, when we don't know what Bach himself would say, or whether he would care about these "musical atrocities".

Do have a good sense of the style, but be wary of being a "complainer", rather than just enjoying the music being played.

February 14, 2019, 11:24 AM · What are your current preferred interpretations, Scott?

At least Kremer's have motivation behind them, and I don't mind the aggressiveness so much (at least I don't want to lay down and take a nap like other versions I've listened to).

February 14, 2019, 12:31 PM · "but be wary of being a "complainer","

Or a copier.

People who have started the Chaconne should, hopefully, be learning to think for themselves as well. The old model of "here are my fingering and bowings, which I got from the famous (fill in here...), so do it this way" is outdated, unless the student is simply unable to think outside the box. I get that sometimes, and it's no crime on the student's part. Often, it's just a question of maturity (but of course, if they lack maturity, should they be attempting the Chaconne...?). I always ask my students "did you try every possible fingering? Did you look at the piano score? Is there another bowing that will solve this problem?"

I have students whose sole reason for playing something a certain way is that that's the first thing that popped up on Youtube.

Pamela,
I don't really listen to recording of Bach anymore. And when I did, it wasn't a global question of this violinist or that violinist. It can come down to individual phrases. I can agree with this phrase here, but not with that one. Or like one particular movement, and not the others. What I really don't like is when a violinist, especially a very well-known one, seems to lack any kind of plan or underlying philosophy. A great example is the Mintz's recording from about the 80s or something (I have many, many recordings of Bach, by the way). It seems obvious that he just sat down in a studio and starting slamming through the movements, and at the end some engineer juiced it up with a ton of reverb.

I've found that relying too heavily on one recording really detracts from one's imagination. I suggest people learn the piece to the best of their ability, try this, try that, maybe even perform it, and ONLY then start listening to other ideas.
Question fingerings, especially from "famous teachers." Look for example at the silly Viotti bowing in the Beethoven concerto that has unfortunately been passed along. And it's my main beef about Suzuki:
"Here, you must teach it this way" and then "Here, you must learn it this way..."

February 14, 2019, 2:40 PM · This is hard to do because there are so many easily accessible recordings these days, but what you might try sometime is looking at a Bach piece you've never heard before and just learn it from scratch. Find the music in the notes, and get it to the highest level you can in this way. Then, after this, check out some recordings just to see how their interpretation was different than yours.

You might pretend you just discovered a long lost piece of sheet music, and now you have to be the first to perform it!

Edited: February 14, 2019, 3:07 PM · The big advantage of being an amateur is that you can play something the way you want. I agree with Scott also. Whether I like a particular recorded version is movement by movement. It's hard enough to make a coherent whole out of each movement, harder still (and perhaps impossible or even pointless) to do that across entire sonatas or partitas. To some extent all great recording artists do this unwittingly because they have particular things that they do or don't do when playing, which they can adopt with better consistency than amateurs can, and which some might collectively call a "playing style." But one might conclude, for example, that Heifetz's style fits well one movement and not so well another.

In Bach's day, a chaconne would have been an excuse for players to improvise shamelessly, perhaps even while inebriated, or whilst playing for dancers who are.

February 15, 2019, 5:09 PM · Paul... I think the first public performance of Chacnne was in 1840. Because partitas were not written to order, I doubt anyone would play Chaconne for a bunch of innebriated dancers. The form Chaconne is a dance, but this particular one was not written for dancers.
My 5c at least...

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